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Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 03:42 PM

Council kicks tires on second car-share service

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle could get a new car-sharing program next year that would allow people to rent by the minute and take one-way trips.

The City Council is considering authorizing the company Car2Go, which operates in five U.S. cities, to extend its services to Seattle. The company relies entirely on Smart Cars that hold two people, get 37 mpg and take up just half a parking space.

Under the proposed deal with the city, Car2Go would bring up to 350 cars, which could park for up to 72 hours on the street in metered parking places or in residential parking zones. Car2Go charges users 38 cents per minute (with hourly and daily caps) after a one-time $35 membership fee.

"This is another great transportation option for people who would prefer not to own a car or want to get rid of a second car," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chair of the transportation committee.

The committee will consider the ordinance Friday, with the full council expected to vote Monday.

Some council members have raised questions about the proposed service, noting that the initial pilot program won't extend to most of Southeast Seattle or West Seattle.

At an initial hearing in October, Councilmember Bruce Harrell questioned whether leaving out the most racially and economically diverse neighborhood in Seattle met the city's goals for race and social justice.

The company had drawn its proposed southern boundary at Interstate 90, but is now extending the service area as far south as the Mount Baker and Beacon Hill light-rail stations.

Harrell said he'd like to see the service include Columbia City and West Seattle.

"The average citizen doesn't know about this. We need to make sure these communities have a chance to make their case about getting the service in the future," Harrell said.

Council members also questioned whether putting up to 350 more cars on city streets would take up all the available parking and whether the city would be adequately reimbursed for the use of its street parking.

The company says that its GPS technology allows it to tell where and for how long a car is parked. It will pay the city a minimum of $1,330 per car per year — more if a car racks up more parking charges — to cover on-street parking fees and residential parking permits, under the proposed legislation.

The street-use fees are comparable to the amounts charged by Portland, where the company launched in March. It already has expanded its service there based on customer demand and has added 30 electric cars to its fleet, said Car2Go spokeswoman Katie Stafford.

A Portland transportation spokeswoman said the city has received "very few complaints from residents or businesses of cars being left at locations for too long," said Cheryl Kuck of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

There are more than 20 car-sharing programs in North America and they are projected to show 30 percent year-over-year growth through 2020, said Stephen Spivey, a transportation analyst for the international consulting and research firm Frost & Sullivan. He said the total number of users in North America is expected to grow from 820,000 to 8.4 million over the next seven years.

The car-sharing programs also pay environmental dividends. Spivey said a 2012 study by his firm found that each car-sharing vehicle replaces between nine and 13 cars on the road, cutting congestion and carbon emissions.

And while university students were the most frequent early users of the programs, he said the sheer growth suggests that car sharing is reaching a broader demographic, including urban professionals and downsizing seniors.

Seattle was among the first in America to have a car-sharing plan. King County Metro launched a public-private partnership in 1999 to create Flexcar. In 2007, Flexcar was absorbed by Zipcar.

Zipcar President Mark Norman said technology increasingly makes it possible to have "in your hand, on-demand access to a vehicle," whether that is a car share, a bus or a taxi.

Zipcar rental is by the half-hour and the car must be returned to the same location, typically in a private parking lot or garage. They can be reserved in advance (Car2Go allows reservations only up to 15 minutes before use). Zipcar users pay to park at parking meters and can't park more than two hours in residential parking zones.

Norman said that in cities with competing programs such as Car2Go, use tends to be complementary, with people relying on Zipcar for longer trips requiring different-size vehicles and using Car2Go for shorter trips.

"Anything that makes it easier to live car-free in the world's great cities is consistent with our vision," Norman said.

Clare Zimmerman, a recent University of Washington graduate, doesn't own a car. She uses Zipcar typically for trips starting and ending at home. She rented a Zipcar to make an Ikea run, and another when she moved.

But she said she could see using Car2Go for shorter, one-way trips, like getting to work more quickly than on the bus.

"I'd use it for different kinds of trips. I think it would be really cool," she said.

Councilmember Rasmussen said he was recently in Vancouver, B.C., which has three car-share programs. The friends he stayed with are members of Car2Go and said they use it interchangeably with transit and taxis.

"They love it and they've been able to give up one car," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen, who lives in West Seattle, said he'd like to see Car2Go expand to more neighborhoods. But he said he doesn't want to hold up the legislation.

"I'm very eager to move forward with this, and maybe, eventually, to reach all of Seattle."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.


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